Tired of trying to sell German cars to Americans, Volkswagen gave up on that idea with the latest Passat and instead gave us what it thought we'd want: a truly American car. Introduced as a 2012 model, the all-new Passat broke with the popular European version (which is as ubiquitous on the roads of its home country as the Toyota Camry is here). Designed specifically for the U.S.A., the new American Passat is -- predictably -- larger: 4.0 inches longer and half an inch wider than the previous model, with a 3.7-inch greater span between the axles. Not only is the Passat designed for America, it's also built here, at VW's brand-new factory in Tennessee. That helped bring about the Passat's most important change -- a massive price cut of almost $7000 for the base model.
A rethink on this scale demanded a full-year examination. We ordered a new Passat and quickly relearned the age-old lesson of new-car buying, which is that a low advertised price is often elusive. At that time, the Passat started at $20,765. However, since the base engine had devolved from a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder to the rather grim, 2.5-liter five-cylinder, we moved up to the turbo-diesel. That put us at the SE trim level (which brings a power driver's seat, heated front seats, and a touchscreen radio). We knew from experience that the TDI doesn't play so well with the manual transmission, so we added an automatic, along with a sunroof and navigation. Lo and behold, we'd crested $30,000.
The new Passat certainly looks like an American sedan. In the eyes of deputy editor -- and corn-fed Midwesterner -- Joe DeMatio, its appearance is "conservative, handsome, and elegant. I think it is going to age very well." Others found the straight-edged exterior styling closer to dull, but it's designed to emphasize the car's length and width.
Indeed, open a rear door and you'll see the kind of wide-open spaces America is famous for. This is a big, roomy car for the money, with more rear-seat space and a larger trunk than an Audi A6. DeMatio again: "This is definitely a car that four adults could easily take on a trip without anyone feeling compromised." Nor would they need to pack light; the trunk is vast. "My Costco take looked pathetically small in the trunk," said road test editor Christopher Nelson. (Note, however, that Nelson is a bachelor who lives alone and probably had bought little more than a case of beer and a 48-pack of ramen noodles.)
Like the exterior, the interior design is all about making the car seem big. You'll find no cockpitlike environment here -- instead, the dash is as flat and featureless as the Great Plains. "It's the antithesis of cars like the Ford Taurus," DeMatio noted, "which feels small on the inside because its designers were obsessed with providing a supposed executive sporty feel to the cabin so you're enveloped by the instrument panel, the center console, and the high window line." In contrast, the Passat's shallow dashboard and upright windshield add to the general feeling of openness. The good view out meshes well with the businesslike driving position, which offers a large dead pedal and a generously adjustable steering column.
Whereas the Passat's interior materials once set the standard for the segment, that's not the case anymore. In true American tradition, with the Passat cabin you're paying for quantity, not quality. We found no power outlet or climate-control vents for the rear-seat passengers, no trunk pass-through, no button to turn off the traction control, no backup camera. Note also that we were sitting on leatherette, not leather. When our Four Seasons Nissan Altima 3.5 SL arrived on the scene, staffers noted that it had a lot more equipment for not much more money.
One piece of equipment that might have been better to skip was the Passat's navigation system. Its maps are poorly detailed, the automatic-zoom function is annoying, and, worst of all, it gives poor directions. "The navigation software is maddening," senior web editor Phil Floraday said upon returning from a trip to rural Ohio. Another staff member said, "The last time I saw in-car graphics this bad was when I put a Sega Genesis and a thirteen-inch tube TV in a minivan for a family road trip." The system's only really good qualities? Easy destination entry and a POI function that can find filling stations with diesel.
The touchscreen radio also came in for criticism, as did the Bluetooth system. On the other hand, we appreciated the excellent steering-wheel controls, and, during a summer heat wave, more than one driver commented on the freezing-cold A/C -- an American-car essential.
One area where our Passat still was decidedly European was its powertrain. We'd chosen the TDI rather than the price-leader 2.5-liter five-cylinder or the powerful but thirsty narrow-angle V-6, and, admittedly, either of the other two might be considered the more American engine choice. But we were intrigued by the prospect of a big car with big mileage, and that's exactly what the TDI delivered. We got great mileage and range. The EPA ratings are 30/40 mpg city/highway, but we regularly did better on the highway and sometimes also in the city. Driving into and out of Manhattan, New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman claimed to be getting 38 mpg, which ended up being our overall average. More impressive was that we often were able to go more than 600 miles between fill-ups.
What about the diesel's livability? "The diesel is smooth but needs a pretty good thrashing to keep up with fast-moving traffic," said associate editor David Zenlea. The 2.0-liter makes only 140 hp but 236 lb-ft of torque. "I really like the TDI engine," Floraday added. "Acceleration isn't the strongest but the fuel economy is worth it." Volkswagen pairs the TDI with its DSG rather than a conventional automatic. The six-speed dual-clutch automatic is snappy and responsive -- except, that is, at low speeds, particularly when moving off from a stop. This is a common characteristic of these transmissions, but executive editor Todd Lassa thought this one was "far better than the dual-clutch automatics from Chrysler/Fiat or Ford." Even so, your overall happiness with the DSG will probably correlate inversely with how much time you spend in stop-and-go driving.
The diesel engine is not the only aspect of this car that recalls the homeland. There's also the chassis tuning. "The Passat still has that fabled German suspension tuning that makes it stable at highway speeds and composed in turns," Floraday said. Don't expect a cloudlike, American-style ride, however; the Passat can be harsh over sharp impacts. The steering, moreover, was called "the best in the mid-size business." DeMatio praised its "great on-center feel" and noted that "the car tracks beautifully." Another commenter chimed in: "The Passat is a reminder that good steering is a great thing to have."
"VW took the job of Americanizing the Passat very seriously," Kitman concluded. "It fairly reeks American car." That sounds like a negative, and in some respects it is. The Passat used to feel as if it were a class above, but that's no longer true. And the headline-making price reduction proves to be less impressive on closer examination. The newfound roominess, however, is truly welcome. The TDI engine, which is so abstemious with fuel you'd think diesel was eight dollars a gallon (like it is in Europe), adds a truly European quality to what was once an actual European car. So, too, does the chassis tuning. Yes, the Passat has been successfully Americanized. But beneath its plus-size American body, the Passat's mechanicals show that Germans laid a hand on it -- and that means VW's entry remains a unique proposition in the mid-size market.
The Passat replaces the Quantum (known as the Passat in Europe) as VW's big sedan and wagon. The standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder (134 hp) is mounted transversely, and a four-speed automatic transmission is new. A narrow-angle 2.8-liter V-6 (172 hp) arrives for 1992 and a 1.9-liter turbo-diesel for the final model year, 1997.
The Passat makes a quantum (sorry, we couldn't help it) leap with the all-new 1998 model, code-named B5. Again, the Passat is offered as a sedan or a (particularly handsome) wagon; sleek styling and an upscale interior transcend the Passat's price class. Sharing its platform with the Audi A4, the Passat reverts to a longitudinal engine orientation. The standard four-banger is now a 1.8-liter turbo (150 hp), and the optional VR-6 is a 30-valve 2.8-liter. Four-wheel drive arrives for 2000.
VW applies a generous helping of chrome to the Passat's exterior for B5.5 models -- actually making them look better. A TDI is briefly offered along with a wacky W-8 eight-cylinder engine. The latter is served with 4Motion at a heady starting price of $38,450. Takers, understandably, are few.
The B6 Passat appears for 2006 -- the late-arriving wagon is a 2007 -- with a new look and a new transverse-engine platform. A 2.0T (200 hp, 207 lb-ft) is standard, a 3.6-liter VR-6 (280 hp, 265 lb-ft) is optional; the latter can be had with four-wheel drive. With the arrival of the sleek CC for 2009, the Passat lineup is trimmed of its V-6 and 4Motion; the following year, the six-speed automatic switches to a DSG.
VW skips the 2011 model year as it readies the first U.S.-made Passat for 2012. The first-ever U.S.-specific model, it is built in Tennessee. Larger than its predecessor, it's also much cheaper, with an advertised price of less than $20,000 (before destination). It is offered as a sedan only, with a choice of three engines: a 2.5-liter five-cylinder, a 3.6-liter VR-6, and a 2.0-liter TDI. The six-speed automatic returns with the base engine; the optional powerplants retain the six-speed DSG. A manual can also be chosen but only with the I-5 and TDI engines. A new 1.8-liter turbo four will replace the 2.5 for 2014.